Tag: research

Study: We’re All Terrible At Reading Our Cats’ Facial Expressions

Most of us completely suck at deciphering our cats’ facial expressions, according to a new study.

That might come as a surprise to some because it’s often claimed cats don’t have facial expressions, or they can’t be read. They do, and they can.

The researchers from Ontario’s University of Guelph used a series of short clips selected from YouTube cat videos. They stripped all the context and blacked out everything but each cat’s face so participants wouldn’t be able to read body language or identify what the cats were doing.

The people who participated in the study — more than 6,000 in all — had only the faces to go on, and they were asked to assess whether each cat’s facial expression was positive or negative.

It turns out reading feline facial expressions is especially difficult: On average, participants got only 11.85 out of 20 questions right. That’s less than 60 percent.

Here’s the crazy part: Researchers found cat owners were no better at interpreting cat expressions than random people. Veterinarians scored the highest, a result that makes perfect sense.

surprised-cat-1
“No, I did NOT drink from the toilet! How dare you impugn my character with such vulgar accusations, good sir!”

Less than 15 percent of people are “cat whisperers,” study author Georgia Mason said, and can correctly interpret a cat’s mood based on the face alone.

“Anyone who writes cats off as sort of moody or distant is probably underestimating them,” Mason said. “The point is they are signaling, it’s just subtle and you need expertise and maybe intuition to see it.”

If you’re wondering what the test looks like, you can take an abbreviated version of it online. Here’s my score:

5FE0F41B-9178-4408-83F0-C9922A09A206

I’m a cat whisperer! Okay, not really. I scored a lousy four out of eight in the advanced version of the test.

I’m accustomed to reading feline body language — whiskers, ears, tails and fur provide a wealth of information about a cat’s mood — and absent most of that information, I found it difficult to gauge based on their faces alone.

On the positive side, scientists say the lessons from these studies can be applied to our companion cats eventually.

“We’re hoping [to conduct] more research to develop tools to help people read their cat better,” Mason said. “That would make living with a cat more rewarding.”

Top photo credit: BBC Science Focus

angrycat.jpg
Is this cat: A) very angry, B) extremely angry, or C) ready to kill her human?

How Long Is Too Long To Leave A Cat Alone?

“If you want a pet but you don’t have time to walk a dog, get a cat.”

“As long as they have food, cats are fine. They don’t care if they’re left alone.”

“Cats are solitary creatures who are content to ignore you.”

Despite taking over the internet and solidifying their status as one of the most endearing animal species, cats are still widely misunderstood, as these oft-spoken sentiments illustrate.

Of course, as we cat servants know, our furry friends do care very much about remaining in the company of their favorite people.

In a new column on Psychology Today, bioethicist Jessica Pierce backs up something we’ve been saying for ages: Cats are social animals, and it’s harmful to think of them as one step above a plant, content to live a solitary existence as long as they’re fed and watered.

The myth of the aloof, independent cat feeds another misconception: that cats are just fine when we’re not around. Indeed, a common piece of advice for someone thinking about acquiring a pet is “if you are gone a lot and don’t have time for a dog, get a cat instead.” Many people believe that cats can be left alone for long hours every day, and can even safely be left alone for days or even weeks, as long as food and freshwater are made available to them.

This is bad advice and does cats a great disservice because domestic cats kept as companion animals in homes likely need their humans just as much as companion dogs do.

So how long is too long to leave a cat alone? Unfortunately no one knows for sure.

There haven’t been studies on the topic, in part because many behavioral scientists still believe cats are too difficult to work with in research settings.

1495125423076
The big tough guy who cries by the door when I step out of the house for 20 minutes.

But new studies — including the research out of Oregon State that showed cats view their humans as parent-like figures — show cats form strong emotional connections to their people, mirroring the behavior of dogs and even human children.

Other recent studies demonstrated that cats crave human attention and affection even more than food, and look to their humans for reassurance when they’re uncertain about things.

Some people will say that’s all fairly obvious and unremarkable, but there are two primary reasons the findings are significant: First, in the scientific community something has to be proven in a controlled, replicable study. Anecdotes don’t count. Secondly, there’s finally enough research to confirm cats absolutely form bonds with their humans, and those bonds are genuine.

Although felines are superficially aloof, when you get to know them better it becomes clear they’re simply good at pretending they’re nonchalant.

buddynotamused
“No more computer, it’s Buddy time!”

While cautioning that cats are individuals with their own personalities and quirks, Pierce suggests looking to research on dogs and loneliness.

“The rough guidelines for dogs—that about four hours alone is comfortable, but longer periods of alone time may compromise welfare—may be a reasonable place to start for cats,” Pierce wrote, “but further research into cat welfare is needed in order to develop empirically-grounded guidelines for leaving cats alone.”

As for Buddy, who is known to meow mournfully and park himself by the front door when I leave, his one-off limit is about 12 hours, or half a day. I’m okay with leaving him alone overnight after he’s been fed, and while he may not like it, he’s fine if left alone for an extended period once in a while. I wouldn’t do that regularly.

Anything more than that, however, and I’ll enlist the aid of a friend to stop by, feed him and play with him. Maybe that way I won’t get the cold shoulder and resentful sniffs when I return.

That Cat Allergy Vaccine Isn’t Such A Good Idea After All

Last month when news headlines trumpeted the successful testing of a cat allergy vaccine, we spun it as a victory for all cats: Finally, allergies would no longer be an excuse for humans to avoid cats, and kitties could conquer the remaining holdouts, those homes that still aren’t occupied by America’s favorite pet.

Cats will be everywhere! Huzzah!

We were wrong.

Reader Kamala Tirumalai is not only an animal lover, caretaker of a feisty guinea pig and all-around awesome person, she’s also an immunologist with a PhD in microbiology. In other words, this is her area of expertise.

So we asked Dr. Kamala about the vaccine — which would be administered to cats, not people — and she was kind enough to give it some thought and explain why she doesn’t think it’s a good idea.

C2BAD0AD-F9F2-4276-8E5E-E5F6887D3108

How HypoCat works

First, a refresher: HypoCat, a European company, created what it calls a “virus-like particle vaccine” “to induce neutralizing antibodies against Fel d 1, the major feline allergen in human subjects.” The vaccine was intended to “bind and neutralize the Fel d 1 allergen.”

In layman’s terms, the vaccine is designed to shut off the protein that triggers allergic reactions and symptoms like itchy skin, watery eyes and sneezing in humans. Contrary to what many people believe, the offending protein doesn’t come from cat hair, it’s produced in cat saliva and dander. But because cats are fastidious groomers, the allergen is passed from saliva to fur.

Vaccine administered to cats, not humans

HypoCat stops the protein, but there’s a catch: The vaccine is administered to cats, not humans, which means instead of inoculating people from the protein’s effects, it’s changing the way Fel d 1 operates in a cat’s system.

The problem, as Kamala points out, is that “Fel d 1’s function is still unknown.”

“Yet the fact that so many cat glands secrete it all the time implies it must have some function in and for cats,” she explained. “What if that’s a function important for their health? What’ll happen then to cats vaccinated against Fel d 1? That’s currently an unknown.”

By “neutralizing” Fel d 1 — in other words, making it non-functional — HypoCat could trigger an autoimmune response in cats not unlike human autoimmune diseases in which the body’s defensive systems turn on itself.

Tinkering with an unknown

In a paper published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the Swiss-based company’s researchers acknowledge the unknowns surrounding Fel d 1’s function, noting while “some function in pheromone binding and pelt conditioning has been suggested, the biological function of Fel d 1 remains uncertain.”

More than 50 cats from labs in New York and Ireland were used in the study. The study’s authors say they split the subjects into different groups to analyze immunogenicity (whether the vaccine produced an immune response) and tolerability, but there is no long-term data on how HypoCat might affect house cats.

Then there’s the moral and ethical aspect. HypoCat makes a potentially dangerous alteration to cats for the convenience of humans.